How and why to garden without peat
Towards the end of last year controversy struck the horticultural world. Monty Don used his gardening column to urge gardeners to steer clear of peat-based composts and suggested that those producing these composts and the garden centres selling them are actively choosing to harm the planet.
For many years peat has been seen as a cheap and reliable compost for home gardeners. It also generates a good income for many horticultural businesses, and there are growers who will tell you that it’s impossible to grow strong, healthy plants in peat-free alternatives. Despite this, many of us have chosen to avoid peat-based composts and planted flower-filled, productive gardens and allotments for decades. And this year it seems many more gardeners are opting for peat-free compost, with garden centres reporting a shortage. While peat-containing composts may be slightly less expensive to buy, the hidden costs of using them are much higher in terms of environmental damage and climate change.
Like oil, peat is formed over hundreds of years from the decaying organic matter. The difference is that peat forms in waterlogged conditions with low nutrients and low oxygen availability. Removing peat and bagging it up to sell to gardeners damages the environment in major ways –
- Peatlands are a unique environment and home to a specific range of plant and animal species. Plants like the hare’s tail cottongrass, which is the larval foodplant for the rapidly declining large heath butterfly, rely on boggy habitats. They are also important breeding grounds for birds such as the golden plover and dunlin.
- Upland peat bogs soak up rain water, then slowly release it. This means that the areas downstream are protected from flooding – or could be if the peatlands are left in situ and responsibly managed.
- Peat bogs also store carbon, lots of carbon. On a global scale, peatlands are responsible for storing twice as much carbon as forests. Dig up peat and you start releasing the carbon into the atmosphere. At this stage of the climate crisis, we really need as much carbon as possible left in the ground… in fact we need to be using healthy soil’s ability to sequester carbon as a way of pulling carbon from the atmosphere.
So which compost should I be using?
Using peat-free compost is going to have to become the only option for gardeners. Admittedly not all the composts now available are great quality, and even the same brand can be variable from one year to the next. SylvaGrow and Dalefoot Composts are widely recommended for UK gardeners. I’ve also had good results with Miracle Gro peat free compost which is often available at garden centres.
And don’t forget to check that plants you buy have been grown in peat-free compost too. There’s a really useful list of peat-free nurseries available for UK gardeners.
If you garden outside of the UK and can recommend composts and/or nurseries to other gardeners, please leave a comment below.
Tips for going peat-free
- I went to a talk by a commercial salad grower who used only peat-free compost. Their top tip was to use a liquid feed more often than you would for plants growing in peat based compost. From experience they felt that the peat-free alternatives didn’t hold nutrients so well and the plants needed that bit extra feeding.
- For starting seeds, I tend to add some vermiculite to the compost. This ensures good drainage and seems to help the seeds get going – especially things like chillies and tomatoes. I don’t bother so much for the more ‘sturdy’ seeds – squash, beans and fast-growing salad leaves are happy enough in just the compost.
- Do it!